Pete Sampras is a better tennis player than Roger Federer.
For years, it seems like the tennis community has anointed Federer as the greatest player ever to wield a tennis racquet. Federer is quiet and graceful, a wizard of the game who appears to not even break a sweat on the court.
While nothing is to be taken away from all of his accomplishments, let's look at some factors that may have helped Federer become as great as he is. In his recent best seller Outliers Malcolm Gladwell examined the factors that contribute to high levels of success.
Roger Federer would be a great tennis player no matter what era he played in. The era that Sampras played in was one of the greatest in history however, and was a very special time in tennis.
The depth in the game was outstanding, with the likes of Andre Agassi, Patrick Rafter, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang, Boris Becker, and Jim Courier providing competition for Sampras. Sampras even matched up against aging veterans such as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.
Sampras bridged a gap from the McEnroe-Connors era to the Nadal-Federer era. While Federer would have won his share of battles against these caliber of opponents , it is likely that he would have won less, with more of a toll taken on his body. Sampras would likely have won many more titles if he played against the current cast of characters. Some say that Federer was just that dominant and made the era appear weaker, but I believe the names of the eras speak for themselves.
Roger Federer is the Mike Tyson of tennis, and he has met his Evander Holyfield in Rafael Nadal, an opponent who thrives on will, determination, and grit. Nadal hasn't been intimidated by Federer, and has punched back repeatedly. It is nearly impossible to view Federer as the best of all time, or better than Sampras, when he has a 7-13 all time record against his main competitor. Nadal is Federer's Kryptonite.
On the other hand, Sampras was 20-14 against Andre Agassi, 16-4 vs Jim Courier, and 12-4 vs Patrick Rafter.
Someday. history will judge Federer's career in the proper perspective. Wilt Chamberlain, with all his skills and abilities, is not viewed as well as Bill Russell, a gritty warrior who won the head-to-head battles. Federer's place in the Tennis Hall of Fame is secure, but his place as the best ever is not, and that's a crying shame.